Summary: Paul discovers that Peter has done an about face and is behaving hypocritically.
We’re all so perfect that we never get into arguments with anyone - aren’t we? You never had a fight with your spouse? You’ve never had a blow-up with any of your children? You’ve never disagreed with your boss or supervisor? Everything has always been perfect - you’ve moved through life without controversy?
Well, now that you’ve had a good laugh, we need to confess that we’re not perfect, that we didn’t marry someone who was perfect, and we certainly didn’t give birth to and raise perfect kids. My sons never agreed with me 100 %. There were times that Andrew would come home from getting a haircut, and his hair would be trimmed a little on the way side, and I never got upset with him - just let him wear it that way until the time came when changed it to something I would say, was more acceptable.
Controversy is nothing new in the Bible, either. The first controversy that made adversaries out of men, was the jealousy that Cain had with Abel because his offering to God was more acceptable. Cain was so made that he killed Abel, his brother. Not all controversies end in murder, but it certainly is possible. Jesus was constantly at war with the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Disagreements happen.
Today’s scriptures tell us that Paul, shortly after his departure from Jerusalem, found out that Peter had done an “about face” and behaved hypocritically toward the church at Antioch. The solidarity sealed by a handshake in Jerusalem just months earlier, was in danger of splitting the church. Paul had to do something quickly. Paul had to confront Peter about his hypocrisy.
Peter the Hypocrite
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray” (2:11-13)
Antioch had a large Jewish and Gentile community, strengthening the chance of a balance between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Peter at first acted appropriately and consistently with his earlier endorsement of Paul’s ministry by freely sharing meals with gentile Christians. Peter’s willingness to share meals with Gentile believers was consistent with Jesus’ practice and the vision he had received from God regarding Cornelius.
Mealtimes presented one of the most challenging situations for Jew-Gentile fellowship. For many Jews the purity laws relating to clean and unclean foods resulted in a reluctance to share meals with Gentiles. Sitting down at the table with the Gentiles, Peter provided and official stamp of approval on the oneness and equality of all believers, Jew and Gentile alike.
But after the arrival of “certain men from James,” Peter withdrew and separated himself out of fear of the “circumcision party.” Two questions demand a response: Who were the men from James? And why was Paul infuriated with Peter’s actions?
The “men from James” were probably Jewish Christians who were part of the Jerusalem church. Obviously they were hard-liners on the issue of circumcision, and likely sided with those who wanted Titus circumcised. Although Paul describes them as coming “from James,” it’s hard to imagine that James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, had sent them so quickly after affirming that they need not be circumcised.
No, these men had probably exaggerated their credentials in order to give themselves the appearance of an official delegation with the power to command that Gentile Christians be circumcised. Peter likely feared what the repercussions might be for his ministry to Jews if the report spread that he mixed too freely with Gentiles.
Paul was outraged by Peter’s change of heart. Peter knew that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians belonged at the same table sharing meals together and he had modeled it until opposition arrived. Rather than taking a stand and displaying courage, Peter acquiesced and displayed cowardice. Peter was a people pleaser instead of a God pleaser.
Peter also acted hypocritically, acting contrary to his true convictions; he knew better. The unity, equality, and fellowship of Jew and Gentile in Christ were central to God’s plan of redemption. Peter hadn’t made an honest mistake; he had deliberately and shamefully put on a mask of pretense. For Paul, people pleasing and hypocrisy were actions unbecoming an apostle.
And Peter’s hypocrisy didn’t affect just a few - it also had an effect on Barnabas and other Jewish Christians. They joined Peter in his hypocrisy. For over ten years Barnabas had served as a faithful supporter and fellow missionary of Paul. But now, carried away by Peter’s reversal, Peter, Barnabas, and the others stood condemned; Paul stood alone.